“Indeed the state of all who are preoccupied is wretched, but the most wretched are those who are toiling not even at their own preoccupations, but must regulate their sleep by another’s, and their walk by another’s pace, and obey orders in those freest of all things, loving and hating. If such people want to know how short their lives are, let them reflect how small a portion is their own.”
Seneca, via Brain Pickings
A friend of mine recently observed,
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who want peace and those who want justice. I used to be justice-minded. The older I get the more I become focused on peace.
His comment was part of a larger discussion about how to resolve significant differences that inevitably emerge within valued relationships. What do you do when a loved one feels that you have wronged her and you feel wronged by your loved one?
My friend and I weren’t talking about life-threatening situations. Obviously, that’s a whole different story. We were talking about the little arguments that peck away at relationships. They’re questions about money or pride or preference.
When those disagreements come up, what do you do? For my friend, he decides whether it is more important that he be right (justice) or that he have a healthy relationship (peace), and then acts accordingly.
I’ve told this story to my shrink many times, which says it all. It’s 1950, I’m 6 years old, and it’s the first day of first grade. I am chewing bubble gum at morning recess, and I go back into class chomping away. The teacher—a stern woman, exactly what you’d imagine for that era—looks at me and asks, “What’s in your mouth?” I say, “Gum!” She growls, “We don’t chew gum in first grade! Go back to kindergarten until you’re ready to be a first-grader!” She opens the door, I step out into the hall, and she slams the door behind me.
My first thought was, Injustice! I was actually a good boy. Yet there I was, standing in the hallway all alone. I didn’t even remember where kindergarten was, because the summer had gone by. Even if I could’ve found it, I thought, I can’t walk into a strange room and say, “I’m not ready for first grade. Can I stay in kindergarten?” It was just too terrifying. So I left.
I lived two blocks from school. As I was walking, I was thinking, Well, I thought school was going to last a little longer than one day. I thought maybe there might be some college in there. But even then, I knew I’d rather give it all up than go back into that classroom. I wasn’t crying. I wasn’t upset. It was just a decision: If school was that crazy, if people were that cruel and intolerant, I didn’t belong there.
When I got home, my mother called the school. Apparently, there had been a mad search to find me. The teacher had stepped out into the hall after a few minutes to see if I was sufficiently humiliated, and I wasn’t there. I don’t remember having any further trouble from that woman, or any other teacher. My mother was pretty tough.
That experience made me suspicious of any kind of institutional authority, and that view has never changed. It made me identify with outlaws (even though I never really acted like one). Being from Chicago didn’t help with authority issues. The great history of labor unions and anarchy are all tied up with Chicago, and I was more sympathetic to that history because I always felt like one of the outsiders.
Then I started college in ’62, when the fun began: the free-speech movement, the civil-rights movement, the antiwar movement. It was us against institutional America. It wasn’t new for me—I’d always had that attitude. I’d felt countercultural and alienated long before the Summer of Love.
But an interesting thing happened in those college years. I realized that my first-grade experience accelerated a major aspect of maturity: the capacity to embrace ambiguity. I tell my kids about this, because I think the earlier kids can wrap their brains around that, the better. Things were allegedly black-and-white in the ’60s, but even then I was aware that not everyone with long hair was a good guy, and not everyone on the other side was bad.
From there, many other long-entrenched lies became clearer. I mean, kids are lied to from day one just so they’ll feel safe in the world. We tell them our government knows what it’s doing, that all policemen are good, that priests and ministers are divine and above moral reproach. One of my favorite history books, Lies My Teacher Told Me, looks at high school history texts and the distortions they contain. I live with the assumption that nothing is true just because the government or the media or your teacher says it is. Today, we face problems with no solutions, but you’ll never hear that from a politician. I wish someone would stand up and say, “There will always be poor people, disease, and injustice. We will always be at war with somebody, probably for good reason.” I’d vote for that guy.
Finally, the gum episode gave me a jump on taking responsibility. I see life as a series of moral, ethical, and creative choices, and I started making those quite early. Did that lead me to become a director? Maybe. Decision-making created an aura of leadership that has rewarded me for a long time.
So maybe an intensely negative experience evolved into a positive. I’ve become a history buff over the years, but sometimes the most interesting history to learn from is your own. Even more important, you want your kids to learn from it and—if he’s not tired of hearing about it—your shrink.
“It’s been a long time gestating,’’ Duany said in a phone interview from San Diego, where he was speaking at a small conference focused on Lean Urbanism. “To get a building built in a city is fantastically complicated. The codes are rigamarole. There is no way you can figure them out yourself. You have to hire lawyers and consultants. So the result is that everything is left to big corporations and big developers.’’
That’s Andres Duany talking about the challenges facing creative, local builders and developers.
I completely agree. Regulation favors big business, and this sort of sludge drives talented entrepreneurs to enter other industries, where they can spend more of their time creating and less of it fighting for the freedom to create.
Steve Jobs shares his Parable of the Stones about ideas, execution, and craftsmanship:
You know, one of the things that really hurt Apple was after I left John Sculley got a very serious disease. It’s the disease of thinking that a really great idea is 90% of the work. And if you just tell all these other people “here’s this great idea,” then of course they can go off and make it happen.
And the problem with that is that there’s just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product. And as you evolve that great idea, it changes and grows. It never comes out like it starts because you learn a lot more as you get into the subtleties of it. And you also find there are tremendous tradeoffs that you have to make. There are just certain things you can’t make electrons do. There are certain things you can’t make plastic do. Or glass do. Or factories do. Or robots do.
Designing a product is keeping five thousand things in your brain and fitting them all together in new and different ways to get what you want. And every day you discover something new that is a new problem or a new opportunity to fit these things together a little differently.
And it’s that process that is the magic.
And so we had a lot of great ideas when we started [the Mac]. But what I’ve always felt that a team of people doing something they really believe in is like is like when I was a young kid there was a widowed man that lived up the street. He was in his eighties. He was a little scary looking. And I got to know him a little bit. I think he may have paid me to mow his lawn or something.
And one day he said to me, “come on into my garage I want to show you something.” And he pulled out this dusty old rock tumbler. It was a motor and a coffee can and a little band between them. And he said, “come on with me.” We went out into the back and we got just some rocks. Some regular old ugly rocks. And we put them in the can with a little bit of liquid and little bit of grit powder, and we closed the can up and he turned this motor on and he said, “come back tomorrow.”
And this can was making a racket as the stones went around.
And I came back the next day, and we opened the can. And we took out these amazingly beautiful polished rocks. The same common stones that had gone in, through rubbing against each other like this (clapping his hands), creating a little bit of friction, creating a little bit of noise, had come out these beautiful polished rocks.
That’s always been in my mind my metaphor for a team working really hard on something they’re passionate about. It’s that through the team, through that group of incredibly talented people bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes, making some noise, and working together they polish each other and they polish the ideas, and what comes out are these really beautiful stones.
Here’s a little change that can have a big impact. Try it. It works.
You will literally never hear him say, “I can’t.” He uses more constructive versions of that sentiment that emphasize the possible, such as “I could if I…”
…IDEO’s favorite antidote to negative speech patterns is the phrase “How might we…?” It was introduced to us by Charles Warren, now salesforce.com’s senior vice president of product design, as an optimistic way of seeking out new possibilities in the world….In three disarmingly simple words, it captures much of our perspective on creative groups. The “how” suggests that improvement is always possible. The only question remaining is how we will find success. The word “might” temporarily lowers the bar a little. It allows us to consider wild or improbable ideas instead of self-editing from the very beginning, giving us more chance of a breakthrough. And the “we” establishes ownership of the challenge, making it clear that not only will it be a group effort, but it will be our group.
Years ago, I used to work with my oldest brother. He was the general manger of our real estate development company, and I was our project manager. We no longer work together on a daily basis, but we’re still partners in a couple of ventures. I learned a lot about leadership while working with him, and still do to this day.
One of my earliest lessons came when I brought my brother a problem that I was struggling with, seeking his input on what we should do. I can’t remember what the problem was, but I clearly remember his answer. He said,
Don’t bring me problems; bring me solutions.
He was essentially asking me to come to him with a solution already in mind for whatever problem it was that we faced. He would gladly offer input on my proposed course of action, but to come to him before formulating anything was lazy. He was right!
Saul Bellow put it a little more pessimistically when he wrote,
When we ask for advice, we are usually looking for an accomplice.
I was reminded of both my brother’s and Bellow’s sayings when I overheard a member of our leadership team, in response to a request for direction, asking,
What do you think we should do?
What a wonderful question! It carries all the intent of the “Bring me solutions” directive, with none of the pessimism of Bellow’s accomplice theory, and with all the optimistic empowerment that I like to see in our company culture.
On a related note, here’s a great story about empowering leadership and empowered heroes.